How do we get more women into science? A talk with primatologist Emily Bethell

How do we get more women into science? A talk with primatologist Emily Bethell

To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we speak to some of LJMU's top female scientists about their experiences and the work that needs to be done for gender equality in science to be achieved. 

Primatologists: Jane Goodall and Emily Bethell
Dr Emily Bethell (right) with Dr Jane Goodall and Professor Alice Roberts at the Primate Society of Great Britain Conference.

Meet Dr Emily Bethell, Senior Lecturer in Primate Behaviour at Liverpool John Moores University. Emily leads the MSc programme in Primate Behaviour and Conservation.

The biological sciences have always appealed to Emily. At school her favourite subject was biology as it combined maths and science along with opportunities to get outdoors on field trips. She took her interest further by studying Zoology at UCL with a gap year travelling in Central America and Africa.

"My first encounter with a wild primate was with howler monkeys in Belize and I later spent time with mountain gorillas in Zaire and chimpanzees in Uganda which cemented my desire to study primate behaviour. Primatology is a fascinating subject because we can study primates from so many angles – from what they can tell us about human evolution, conservation or endangered species, to captive welfare in zoos and sanctuaries."

Do you find there is a lack of women in primatology?

"Primatology is one of the few areas of science where women are over-represented, at least amongst students and more junior academic roles. I am on the Council for the Primate Society of Great Britain and we are actively trying to encourage more male students to join the Society and attend our meetings. A typical conference is two-thirds women, although men are still over-represented in the senior positions. This is a result of ‘leaky pipeline’ whereby women fail to reach the more senior roles because of implicit biases against them."

Are there women in science who currently inspire you or did inspire you to take up your subject?

"Like many primatologists, I was first inspired by the highly publicised work of female primatologists like Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzees in what is now Tanzania, East Africa. The women who currently inspire me aren’t famous, but they are my peers and colleagues who are working to educate the next generation of female scientists despite some of the barriers that still prevent many women progressing in science."

Emily Bethell studying macaques in the field

Emily studying rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico to understand the close link between anxiety and visual attention.

So, how do we get more women/girls into science?

"It is important for girls to see women working in science. Scientists who also happen to be female need to be visible. I recently spoke to an audience of young scientists in India and it was inspiring to see so many young women determined to follow a career in science, despite facing so many cultural, educational and financial barriers."

Why is it important to recognise International Day of Women and Girls in Science?

"This day is important for increasing visibility of women in science. I hope we can reach a point where such events are not needed because scientists and students of science have equal opportunity to contribute regardless of any attributes other than their interest and enthusiasm for science. Until that time we need to ensure we keep gender equality on the agenda."

If you’re interested in studying primates or biological sciences in general, take a look at the courses within the School of Natural Sciences and Psychology.

Take a look at the other features in this series on women in science:


Graduate employment: celebrating a new model for Liverpool City Region


LJMU and The Eurovision Song Contest 2023


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